Former general hailed as a hero at the time of the coup but in 2014 was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Kenan Evren, the general who led Turkey’s 1980 military coup that ended years of street clashes between rival left- and right-wing militias but also unleashed a wave of arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, died on Saturday. He was 97.
Evren, who later ruled as president for seven years, died at Ankara’s GATA military hospital, the state-run Anadolu agency reported, hours after he was placed on a respirator because of multiple organ failure and his family and lawyers were called to his side.
Leaders of 1980 military coup in Turkey are jailed for life after showcase trial
Evren was hailed as a hero at the time of the coup for ending fighting that had left 5,000 people dead and put the country on the brink of a civil war. But he soon became one of the country’s most controversial figures, remembered more for the torture of former militants and their supporters and for introducing a constitution that restricted freedoms and formalised the military’s role in politics.
Turkish political leaders are still scrambling to replace the constitution he helped institute.
In 2014 Evren, with the only other surviving member of the 1980 coup, was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment, the first generals to be tried and convicted of leading a coup in Turkey, which has a history of military takeovers. The court decision stripped him of his military title and demoted him to the rank of a private.
The trial was made possible after the Islamic-rooted government of the then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secured constitutional amendments in a 2010 referendum, in the hope that the showcase trial would help put an end to the military’s interventions.
Evren, the head of the Turkish military, sent tanks rolling through the streets of the capital at 4am on 12 September 1980, wresting power from a civilian government that was unable to keep order and dismantling checkpoints manned by battling militias. He shut down parliament, suspended the constitution, imprisoned civilian leaders and disbanded political parties.
It was the country’s third coup since 1960 and was welcomed by most Turks, who were no longer afraid to send their children to school and benefited from the rebound of an economy that had nearly ground to a halt.
Yet 650,000 people were detained in the upheaval and 230,000 people were prosecuted in military courts, according to official figures. About 300 people died in prison, including 171 who died after being tortured.
“The military intervention took place at a time when brothers were fighting each other,” Halil Sivgin, who served as health minister in the late 1980s, said. “Anyone who lived through the conditions of the time knows that everyone was waiting for the military to intervene. [Evren] was later much criticised and prosecuted.”
Celalettin Can, a spokesman for an advocacy group which was imprisoned during the coup, said: “A whole generation was destroyed. Turkey’s future was darkened.”
Evren always maintained that torture was not sanctioned by the military, although it was not clear what, if anything, he did to address it.
“It may have happened, but neither the [military-appointed] government nor the [military] council gave a directive for torture, torment or oppression,” he said in a documentary.
Some 49 people were executed, including 17-year-old Erdal Eren, whose hanging for allegedly killing a soldier horrified Turks. Evren was unapologetic.
Troops seal off a main road in the Turkish capital Ankara after the military coup led by General Kenan Evren
In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Evren’s takeover, Turks voted in a referendum to a series of amendments to the constitution, lifting the coup leaders’ immunity from prosecution. Human rights activists rushed to petition courts for Evren’s prosecution the next day.
The trial against Evren and a former air force commander, Tahsin Sahinkaya, the other surviving coup leader, opened in April 2012. Both men were too ill to attend but gave brief statements to the court through a video link from their hospital beds.
Evren refused to answer prosecutors’ questions, maintaining that the court had no right to put him on trial, but he made a brief statement saying the military was forced to intervene and introduce a “new constitutional order to bring peace and calm”.
“The September 12 movement was a historic event,” he said. “Historic events cannot be put on trial. They are examined scientifically.
“The great Turkish nation did not deserve to live through the [pre-coup] events. We did what was right at the time and if it happened today we would carry out a military coup again.”
Evren was born in Alasehir, western Turkey, the son of emigrants from the Balkans. He graduated from the country’s war college in 1938 and later served in the Turkish contingent that fought in the Korean War.
He was promoted to general in 1964 and was appointed chief of military staff in 1978.
After his retirement he moved to the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris where he took up painting, but returned to Ankara when he became too frail so that he could be near the capital’s military hospital.
Evren’s wife, Sekine Evren, died in 1982. He is survived by three daughters.